A story etched in the rim of a beautiful silver dish in the archives of the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent has intrigued me to no end. It tells of a massive earthquake that devastated the town of Port Royal, Jamaica on June 7th, 1692. Port Royal–a major shipping and commercial center in the West Indies, and haven to pirates–including the fabled Blackbeard–plunged into the bay killing thousands. The story goes that found floating in a cradle, along with the silver dish, was a little Negro child; both were the property of Thomas Norris who had perished in the quake. Both were brought back to Philadelphia by merchant, Isaac Norris. It is a true story. The treasured dish has a provenance, a pedigree, an honored place in a museum. No one bothered to name the slave girl; nor her father who died in the tsunami following the earthquake in an attempt to save his so-called master.
For years I searched for the little girl’s name and her fate. Philadelphia street names, monuments and maps were my compasses on the journey. Plantation diaries, oral histories and folklore were my primary sources of inspiration along the way. In a strange confluence of time and place, odd coincidences began to come into view.
In the course of my research in archival materials, I realized how often Philadelphia streets [some of which I had lived on or near] were named for slave owners and/or merchants who trafficked in human cargo: Norris, Butler, Chew, Carpenter, Dickinson, Washington, Morris, Girard and Master.
I finally found something in Deborah Norris Logan’s diary, along with the provenance of the silver dish. Strange because my great-grandmother, Jane Briscoe Oakley is from Portland, Jamaica. She raised my mother on Norris Street in Philadelphia. Serendipitous, because last year I found myself in Port Royal standing at the edge of the sea that had swallowed most of Port Royal. Apparently, according to the diary, the little girl was passed down from one member of the Norris family to another, property, just like the silver dish. Eventually, she gave birth to a daughter, who was gradually emancipated. Still, no one mentioned her name. And that’s how an earthquake delivered a little slave girl to Philadelphia in a silver dish.
The silver dish is now on display in Reconstructions Gallery of the exhibit, Philadelphia Assembled at the Perelman Building.
The Master Narratives: is series of stories which have emerged from my research in archival material, particularly, plantation diaries, oral histories and folklore. Through a process I call “unforgetting and reconnecting” people, places and objects began to reveal connections to my ancestral homelands and historical parallels between old and new Philadelphia neighborhoods.
“Unforgetting and Reconnecting” is a historical exhibition of archival materials and ephemera from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Library & Archives. Curated by Philadelphia Assembled collaborator and storyteller Denise Valentine and digital librarian Karina Wratschko.
The objects in this exhibition including rare books dating from the 1700s, manuscripts, illustrations, Kara Walker’s 1997 pop-up silhouette book, Freedom: A Fable, and Jeannie Day Roggio’s family Red Book were all encountered on this journey to uncover ancestral connections to contemporary Philadelphia neighborhoods.
You are all invited to a Gallery Talk on November 5th, 3 To 5PM.
Join Denise Valentine, Jeannie Day Roggio (descendant of Pierce Mease Butler) and special guest, Gwen Ragsdale (Lest We Forget Slavery and Holocaust Museum). Location: Library Reading Room, second floor, Perelman Building.
“Unforgetting and Reconnecting”
The Library Reading Room, (Open Tues – Fri, 10a – 5p)
Philadelphia Museum of Art Library and Archives
Perelman Building, 2nd Floor
2525 Pennsylvania Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19130
Unforgetting and Reconnecting complements the exhibition Philadelphia Assembled.
Philadelphia Assembled is a project initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk in collaboration with stakeholders from across the city and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The artistic team including Phoebe Bachman, Kirtrina Baxter, Shari Hersh, Nehad Khader, Mabel Negrete (CNS), Damon Reaves, Amanda Sroka, and Denise Valentine. On view in the Perelman Building through December 10, 2017.